NASHVILLE -- By refusing to air pro-gay marriage ads featuring a Tennessee physician who recently served a tour of military duty in Afghanistan, a Chattanooga television station suddenly finds itself in the thick of the debate.
Last week, NBC-affiliate WRCB-TV Channel 3 turned down efforts by Freedom to Marry, a national pro-marriage equality group, to purchase air time for its 30-second spot as the U.S. Supreme Court nears an expected decision on the issue later this month.
The station's rejection has since burned up the Internet with articles on Buzzfeed, The Huffington Post, the Wonkette blog and a Fox Radio News blog as well as gay advocacy groups' websites.
An examination of online Federal Communication Commission filings shows Chattanooga station affiliates for ABC, CBS and Fox are all airing the ads. The spots are on Nashville and Memphis stations too, including NBC affiliates.
Marc Solomon, national campaign director of Freedom to Marry, called WRCB's action "irresponsible" on Monday.
"Here we have the story of a man from Tennessee who is a naval officer, who's putting his life on the line for our country and he comes back to his home state and he can't marry his partner, the man that he loves," said Solomon, noting there haven't been any similar problems airing the ads in about 22 other cities across the country.
Tennessee advocates of same-sex marriage are unhappy as well and say WRCB's refusal to air the ad is "getting a lot of publicity nationally and even in Tennessee" than airing it would have attracted.
"For me," said Chris Sanders with the Nashville-based Tennessee Equality Project, "the issues are they're saying around the country, 'Oh well, Tennessee again.' Somehow this is going to reflect on the whole state, certainly Chattanooga. It just looks like here goes backwards Tennessee again."
Former state Rep. Richard Floyd, R-Chattanooga, said the station had every right to reject the ad. An opponent of same-sex marriage, Floyd said he saw the ad on another channel.
"It made me want to stick my finger down my throat," Floyd said. "Everybody knows what that is. Let's face it, those people have money to spend."
Floyd said he's concerned the nation's highest court will make same-sex marriage legal nationwide.
"They're fixing to destroy monogamous families and traditional families," he said. "It's the final pillar standing. ... This country will never recover." He said statistics show children do best in marriages between a man and a woman.
The ad features Republican physician Jesse Ehrenfeld, a U.S. Naval Reservist, who wants to marry his partner, Judd Taback, an attorney who also appears in the spot.
Ehrenfeld recently served a nine-month tour of duty, including 7 1/2 months at a combat trauma hospital in Kandahar, Afghanistan. He returned to the U.S. and Tennessee in April.
"I'm a Republican, I'm a doctor, and I'm a soldier," he says in the 30-second ad. "As a military physician, I take care of other people's loved ones who are wounded in combat. But here at home, I'm fighting a different fight. Because I'm gay, I'm not allowed to marry my partner here in Tennessee where we live."
Ehrenfeld goes on to say: "I was able to stand up and put my life on the line for the freedoms that we all enjoy, and yet I don't have the freedom to marry my partner Judd. Support the freedom to marry, because freedom means freedom for everyone."
Buzzfeed quoted Tom Tolar, WRCB's president and general manager, saying last week that the station turned down the ad because "it's just a very controversial and personal issue, and we just choose to not air a commercial on either side of that debate."
He explained that "people probably have really strong opinions on one side or other of the debate. It's just an emotional debate for many people."
Buzzfeed also quoted Tolar as saying "not really" when asked if other issue-based commercials also stir emotional debate.
Efforts to contact Tolar on Monday were unsuccessful. Sanders with the Tennessee Equality Project said when he visited the station Monday he was told Tolar was away from the office due to a recent death in his family.
Ehrenfeld told the Times Free Press Monday that "frankly I was surprised, perhaps a little bit disheartened" by the station turning down the ad. "It never really even frankly dawned on Judd and I when we made the ad that stations would refuse to air an important issue that's the subject of national debate."
WRCB's FCC filings show it did accept issue ads last year from both sides in the heated political debate over a proposed amendment to the Tennessee Constitution. The amendment stripped abortion protections. It passed but the margin was close.
Given that WRCB aired ads last year on the abortion issue, Ehrenfeld said, "in all honesty their response seems a little bit disingenuous to me, particularly since the policy that they cite doesn't exist prior to deciding not to air this particular ad."
He said while he respects the station's right to decide how to run its business, "when you look at the type of ads that they've run .... it seems surprising that they wouldn't allow this particular issue when they got a request to run the ad."
Chattanooga City Councilman Chris Anderson, who is gay, wasn't happy with WRCB's decision.
"It's interesting that a station that's taken money from both sides of the abortion debate suddenly feels that this is too controversial," said Anderson, who charged Tolar showed "his true colors" and discriminated against a large class of Chattanoogans.
Mike Costa, general manager of WTVC, Chattanooga's ABC affiliate, said his station had no problem running the ad.
"We make all our decisions based on what's best for Channel 9," said Costa, who had little interest in discussing WRCB. "We don't really care what any of our competitors do."
Same-sex marriage is now permitted in 37 states through either state legislative or federal court action. It's not in 13 states, including Tennessee. The U.S. Supreme Court recently heard an appeal of a 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals case involving Tennessee and three other states. Justices are expected to rule in that case later this month.
Efforts to reach David Fowler, head of the socially conservative Family Action Council of Tennessee, were unsuccessful. As a Republican state senator from Signal Mountain, Fowler led the charge on passage of the state constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.
In one posting on FACT's website, Fowler, an attorney, says that "except for the nano-second of history represented by the last twenty years or so, marriage has always been viewed as a relationship between a man and a woman.
"Rather than marriage being purely a social construct to be scrapped as society changes, marriage is the name that has been given to a life-long, sexually exclusive relationship between one man and one woman," the post says.
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at 615-255-0550 or firstname.lastname@example.org.